Iraqi Freedom

Edward J. Chrystal

Operation Iraqi Freedom Oral History Interview
US Army, New Jersey Army National Guard
Date: November 22, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler
Summarizer: Mario Bertinelli


Brigadier General Edward J. Chrystal Jr. enlisted in the US Army after deciding to continue the tradition of military service of his father (USMC veteran), his grandfather (WWII US Army veteran), his father’s uncle (WWII USMC veteran), and, as he recently discovered, his great-grandfather, who volunteered for the New York militia during the Civil War. Military service was something he always knew he wanted to do.

Although his father and great uncle were Marines, Chrystal enlisted in the Army for several reasons, chiefly the better chance of attending Airborne School. After enlisting in January 1985 in the New Jersey Army National Guard’s 113th Infantry in Woodbridge, New Jersey, he went to Fort Dix in May for basic training, as did his great-uncle and grandfather. Chrystal was assigned as a trainee squad leader, and he regards the experience as a great introduction to the Army.

Following basic training, Chrystal was transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Airborne School. During the second week of the three-week course, however, he was injured while jumping off a 34-foot tower, when his helmet got caught on a riser which “kind of snapped [his] neck a little bit” and he was sent home on medical leave. One year later, Chrystal returned to Airborne School and actually suffered the same exact mishap. He joined the army ROTC program at Seton Hall University. The following year, while at Ft. Bragg as part of the ROTC Advanced Corps Summer Camp, Chrystal attended the Airborne School located on that base and run by the 5th Special Forces Group, and he finally received his coveted wings.

On his return to Seton Hall, Chrystal was awarded an Army ROTC scholarship, which required him to leave his National Guard unit. He subsequently graduated from Seton Hall in 1988 with a degree in Criminal Justice, received his commission as a second lieutenant and armor officer in the Army Reserves, joined the NJ State Police, and got married. Chrystal described his life at that time, balancing his obligations to his family, the State Police, and the Army, as “difficult at times, but rewarding.”

Chrystal was assigned to the inactive Individual Ready Reserves (IRR) for a few years, but the assignment did not require him to attend any drills. In 1989, his wife accompanied him to Kentucky for several months as he attended Armor Officer Basic School at Ft. Knox. He described a typical day during the course as consisting of “a lot of academics, a lot of physical training, and at the end we got more into the actual field training. We did a lot of tank training and went to the range to fire the tanks.” The part that he enjoyed the most was the “10-day war” field exercise conducted at the end of the course, during which tank crews maneuvered M60 tanks in the woods of Kentucky.

Chrystal was required to attend annual training as part of the IRR. For his first annual training he was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was assigned as an Assistant Basic Training Battery Commander. Chrystal recalled an experience from around September/October 1989 when preparations were being made for Operation Desert Shield:

“All of us who had gotten there, to Fort Sill, we were all sitting together in a big room. We were all Individual Readiness Reserve. Some of us were 2nd Lieutenants, and some of them were Colonels and senior NCOs with, you know, 20-30 years of experience. We were sitting there and someone, I forget the rank, but somebody came in, it was probably a major or a lieutenant colonel, came in and started briefing that the ‘reserves were going to be called up for Desert Shield/Desert Storm, and if anybody wanted to volunteer now they could be sent and have their choice of assignments if that would work out.’ He told [us] to talk about and think about it, he’ll be back in a little bit. Then he walked out and closed the door. All the older guys started screaming and yelling ‘they don’t need you at all. If they needed you they would send you, don’t anyone volunteer.” So of course, none of us volunteered, but they did end up sending some reserve units.”

While Chrystal was not activated, a lot of his friends from Seton Hall who were on active duty were deployed to the Middle East. His second annual training was held at Fort Drum, where he worked as part of an Emergency Deployment Readiness Team around the time of Desert Storm.

Chrystal eventually returned to the National Guard and was assigned to Port Murray Armory in Washington, New Jersey, as a 1st lieutenant and Scout Platoon Leader in the 2nd Battalion, 102nd Armor. His platoon consisted of about 30-40 people, and the duties involved “field training, a lot of running around in the woods, and forward reconnaissance missions for the armored battalion.” He was Scout Platoon leader for about a year and then became his company’s executive officer. Though it was not a promotion in rank, it made Chrystal second in command of the company.

In his civilian life, Chrystal was about seven years into his State Police career when he applied to join the FBI. Due to federal policy at the time, it was not possible to serve concurrently in the FBI and the National Guard. He left the Guard once more and re-joined the individual reserves, but then decided to turn down the offered FBI job, a decision he felt was the best for his family and career. While in the reserves again, Chrystal spent about a year and a half with the 78th Training Division, based at Fort Dix. When the division was doing Lane Training, he was assigned to the Observer Controller Team, responsible for observing and reviewing the training exercises. While with the 78th Training Division, Chrystal was promoted to Captain.

BG Chrystal at the 2017 Museum luncheon.

After two years’ service with the 78th, Captain Chrystal transferred back to the National Guard at Port Murray, where he took command of the Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 102nd Armor. He also returned to Fort Knox for two weeks to complete the resident training phase of his Advanced Armored Officer Training.

Following his command slot at Port Murray, Chrystal was selected to become a New Jersey National Guard Officer Candidate School (OCS) Training Advice Counsel (TAC) Officer at Sea Girt. Many of the candidates he taught who were subsequently commissioned are senior officers today, with a few ranking as high as lieutenant-colonel. Chrystal was promoted to major and moved up to commander of the New Jersey OCS Program. In this role he worked with the OCS school at Fort Benning, Georgia and the National Guard training base in Groton, Connecticut.

Major Chrystal was commander of the Sea Girt OCS on September 11, 2001. He was at home that day, as he was a part of the State Police Technical Emergency and Mission Specialists (TEAMS) out of North Jersey. One of the many duties of the TEAMS unit involved being the qualifying officials for the State Police handgun training. Since the ranges were only available at night, Chrystal was at home with his wife doing chores when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. By that evening, he was at Ground Zero with his SWAT Team. For a few weeks they remained in New York City, assisting with rescue and emergency response efforts.

In addition to his State Police work, Chrystal worked occasional midnight shifts at the National Guard Joint Operation Center in Lawrenceville. His most significant memory about the September 11 catastrophe was the devastation. He recalled, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything…that much devastation. Having grown up in the Northeast, in Union County, New Jersey, you know you see the World Trade Center growing up. […] Ever since I could remember I could see the World Trade Center.” Chrystal also recalled the eerie feeling of being in New York City with no traffic on the streets, and with the only aircraft in the sky F-16 Fighter jets.

Due to his roles in both the State Police and the Army, Chrystal was also involved with relief efforts for hurricanes affecting the United States. Hurricane Floyd was the first storm he responded to; and, in his law enforcement role he checked on houses to make sure that the occupants had evacuated safely, while with the Army, he worked shifts at the Joint Operations Center. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Chrystal received a call from his commander telling him to “make sure to buy some underwear while you’re out shopping. You’re going to need it, we’re heading out to New Orleans next week.”

While the NJ State Police did send officers to assist with Katrina relief, Chrystal’s involvement with Katrina was solely as a member of the National Guard task force assisting with the recovery effort, during which he was designated as operations officer for the mission. He and the other New Jersey Guardsmen traveled to New Orleans with Humvees, where they established a headquarters at the city’s convention center, which also served as a barracks. Chrystal was assigned several duties during the Katrina recovery. He was the Guard’s law enforcement liaison, and, as the S-3-AIR, he coordinated flights as well as ran the Operations Center, which, among other things, collected and cataloged the reports of National Guardsmen as they responded to the disaster. The detachment spent three weeks in New Orleans before driving back to New Jersey.

In 2008, then Lieutenant Colonel Chrystal was called to active duty with the New Jersey National Guard’s 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (IBCT) and served as a Transition Team Chief in the Joint Area Support Group-Central Baghdad. The deployment of the 50th was the largest New Jersey National Guard mobilization since World War II. Initially, he was not slated to be sent to Iraq, as he was a part of the committee that put together the brigade’s farewell ceremony. Due to some movement of personnel, however, Chrystal was added to the deployment as officer in charge of the “late deployers,” who went to New Mexico to receive desert training for three weeks, during which they lived in tents. After flying to Kuwait, the unit went to Camp Virginia for a week more of training. On leaving Camp Virginia, the 50th IBCT was split up and sent to different parts of the country. Some soldiers were sent to Camp Bucca in Balad, but Chrystal was assigned to the International Zone in Baghdad. What he found most interesting on arrival were the highway divider “Jersey Barriers” used to separate the Zone from the rest of Baghdad.

Chrystal’s quarters were on the Tigris River behind the Republican Palace. He worked in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Blackhawk as a member of the Basing and Urban Planning Unit, responsible for managing the work and living space on the base. The unit was also responsible for deciding on the opening of highways, which involved meeting ranking Iraqi officials, including the Minister of Interior. As part of the Joint Area Support Group-Central, Chrystal and other members of the 50th Combat Brigade also worked with many members of different service branches.

The transition of power from coalition forces back to the reestablished government of Iraq was scheduled to occur on New Year’s Day, 2009; and, the days leading up to that date were, Chrystal recalled, “interesting.” Control of FOB Blackhawk was transferred to the Iraqi government, and the Americans moved to FOB Union. Chrystal and his companions felt a sense of pride and accomplishment since they were able to see the results of their efforts in Iraq, as control reverted to a civilian government.

Chrystal’s unit was also present for the opening of the New Embassy Complex, where he would work with the State Department. He also had the opportunity to work with some interpreters, who he is still friendly with, who provided him with a unique perspective on life in Iraq. A sergeant ran a movie night once a week, which provided a bonding occasion for the soldiers serving on the mission. Power was not a constant; Chrystal recalled that, on one occasion, while he was skyping with his wife, electricity began to flicker. He, his wife and his roommate thought that it might have been the result of a mortar attack; but, it was just the instability of the system.

Chrystal was in the Middle East for nine months, during which, thankfully, his unit suffered no casualties and returned to the United States in June 2009. He noted the response to returning soldiers has improved a great deal since Vietnam. Civilian volunteers (most them from veterans’ groups) met the returning Guardsmen at the airport to welcome them home.

Following his return, Chrystal was assigned to Lawrenceville, but then he moved to Westfield, where he was assigned as the squadron commander for the 1-102nd Cavalry. He recalled the 1-102nd as “a great organization, great cavalry soldiers, and infantry soldiers, the headquarters folks…just a great organization and a great unit to have led.” Chrystal was in command of the unit when Hurricane Irene struck the East Coast; they were activated to work with the Red Cross in setting up a shelter at Rutgers.

From 2011 to 2014, Chrystal served as a mobilization officer and liaison between the National Guard and the active duty Army at Fort Dix. The colonel in command of the team assigned Chrystal as his deputy. At the time, Chrystal found his position somewhat humorous, since he never expected he would be one of the people in charge of the base when he was training there in 1985.

During Hurricane Sandy, Chrystal was the National Guard liaison and Training Mobilization Officer at Fort Dix. The NJ National Guard was very involved in the rescue and recovery efforts during and after the storm. Due to his position, Chrystal worked as a liaison officer between the New Jersey National Guard and other units that were coming into the state. He regards the response of the National Guard and the other organizations as a prime example of “neighbors helping neighbors” and of demonstrating what the National Guard is capable of in times of emergency.

In 2014, Chrystal, now a colonel, returned to Lawrenceville, where he served as commander of the 50th Infantry Brigade Combat Team for two years. Around 800 of the brigade’s solders were assigned to active duty overseas during the period of his command; but, Chrystal, with most of the brigade, trained at home and at bases in different areas of the United States, as well as coordinated the active duty deployment orders for some units. In 2016, he was assigned as the New Jersey National Guard’s Land Component Commander, in charge of the 50th IBCT, the 42nd Regional Support Group, and the 57th Troop Command. A year later he was assigned The Deputy Adjutant General for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the Assistant Adjutant General – Army for the New Jersey Army National Guard and promoted to Brigadier General.

Although his family was proud and excited over his promotion, they were a bit overwhelmed by the duties it entailed. In the nine months since accepting the position in February 2017, General Chrystal made three international trips. In June, he and Command Sergeant Major Williams traveled to Garmisch, Germany for a European Command Conference. In September, they went to Albania, and in November, to Macedonia, as part of a regional conference with the “Adriatic Five.” While there, they had a four-course luncheon with the president of Macedonia. These visits were on behalf of the Partnership for Peace Program.

The countries Chrystal and his sergeant major visited were former Communist countries. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, as well as the collapse of independent communist regimes like Albania and Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the United States assigned National Guard units to partner with and assist the military forces in these countries. The New Jersey National Guard was assigned to assist Albania and has established a relationship with that country’s forces since then. Since Albania’s entry into NATO in 2009, the link between that country and New Jersey has involved an officer training school, where Albania sent prospective officers to be trained and commissioned as 2nd Lieutenants in their army. The New Jersey National Guard and the Albanian army also had joint training missions in Afghanistan.

In this most recent trip to Albania, Brigadier General Chrystal met with the new Albanian Chief of Defense, who he looks forward to working with. He was also given a tour of Albania’s air force facilities, including the non-commissioned officer training school, training academy, and headquarters, and he met with the American ambassador to Albania.

During the course of his service, Brigadier General Chrystal has been awarded the following: Bronze star, Meritorious Service Medal with two bronze oak leaf clusters, Army Achievement Medal with one bronze oak leaf cluster, Army Commendation medal with three bronze oak leaf clusters, Army Reserve Components Achievement Medal with one silver and two bronze oak leaf clusters, Armed Forces Reserve Medal with silver hourglass device and M device, National Defense Service Medal with bronze service star, Iraqi Campaign Medal with two bronze service stars, Overseas Service Ribbon, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Service Medal, New Jersey Distinguished Service Medal, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Humanitarian Service Medal with bronze service star, New Jersey Merit Award Ribbon with nineteen year device, Louisiana Emergency Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Overseas Service Ribbon, Parachutist Badge, and the New Jersey Ribbon of Honor with bronze oak leaf cluster.

BG Chrystal was featured in a June 2017 article and a November 2018 article by Tapinto.